The Basics of Automobiles

Automobiles are wheeled vehicles designed for use primarily on roads, typically with seating for one to seven people and powered by internal combustion. They are the most common vehicle in the world, and by 2002 there were about 590 million of them—roughly one for every eleven people. The cars we drive depend on a complex system of supports that resembles the skeletal structure of the human body and respond to the conditions of the road, delivering safety, comfort and power for the driver and passengers.

The automobile revolutionized twentieth-century life, giving many people greater freedom and the opportunity to experience new places. It became the backbone of a new consumer goods-oriented society and helped develop a host of ancillary industries and services—industries that supply petroleum, steel, rubber, glass, fuel and more. It also introduced us to mass production techniques that are used across almost all other industries.

In the beginning, most automobiles were essentially horse-drawn carriages with engines installed. The first modern motorcar was built in 1901, a Mercedes with a thirty-five-horsepower engine, by Wilhelm Maybach for Daimler Motoren Gesellschaft. It cost six hundred dollars and was considered an exceptional accomplishment by the standards of the time—especially in contrast to Ransom E. Olds’ 1901-1906, one-cylinder, three-horsepower, tiller-steered, curved-dash Oldsmobile that sold for only $650.

The basic parts of an automobile include the engine, chassis, suspension and steering. The engine, the heart of the car, powers the wheels by turning a crankshaft and is connected to the wheels by rods. Most modern automobiles have from four to eight cylinders, with larger cars needing more power. Thousands of other components—analogous to the circulatory systems that deliver coolant, lubricating oil and blood to the heart—work together to make the engine run smoothly and reduce noise, friction, pollution and wear.